I Cor. 6: 1When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous(A) instead of the saints? 2Or do you not know that(B) the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? 3Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! 4So if you have such cases,(C) why do you lay them before those who have no standing in the church? 5(D) I say this to your shame. Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to settle a dispute between the brothers, 6but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? 7To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you.(E) Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? 8But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even(F) your own brothers!
Well, I’ve done it again. For the second week in a row I have prepared a sermon on a really angry, anguished Bible passage. Last week it was Paul pulling out his hair over the abuses of the communion service in Corinth, and the humiliating treatment of poor and hungry Christians. Today’s passage comes a close second on the verbal pain and anguish meter, and again, the problem is about relationships, maybe even, again, the mistreatment of the poor and less powerful. Paul even says, “Yes, I’m saying this to make you feel some shame.” Ouch. Because their treatment of each other was shameless.
Read this passage in a Mennonite church and immediately a lot of historical baggage shows up in the pews and the aisles. One of which is a tradition of saying that we Mennonites will have nothing to do with the legal system whatsoever. No lawyers, no lawsuits, not even jury duty, according to some.
To the lawyers and law students among us I say: Stay with me to the end of the sermon, please.
Yet that absolute stance never kept us from incorporating our churches, or signing purchase agreements on a home, all of which are legal documents that can require lawyers and courts. So the inconsistency and impossibility of such a rigid position have led to some church splits and controversies. Like the one in Kansas some forty years ago, when a refinery was polluting a stream that ran through some Mennonite farms. The pollution was so bad it was killing livestock and even vegetation and trees along the stream. The Mennonite farmers contacted the refinery management multiple times, but it was like talking to a brick wall.
Finally, some Mennonite farmers went to court to sue the refinery, with two demands: 1) that they stop polluting the stream; and 2) that they compensate them for lost cows and pasture. With the result that the church was faced with a split between those who said that today’s passage forbids us from ever taking anything or anyone to court, and those who said, “This passage applies within the church, but not outside of it.”
What do you think? I’ll tell you what I think later.
But first, here are four things that I think this passage is not saying:
(One) I think its a stretch to make it say we should never have anything ever to do with the court system. Otherwise, we could never get a drivers’ license, buy a house, start a business, take out a loan or even sign a rental agreement. Nor could Mennonite Central Committee file friend of the court papers on behalf of Native peoples seeking redress from injustice, nor could we participate in victim-offender reconciliation processes. There’s just no avoiding the legal system. Instead, this passage forces us to consider how we are involved in the world’s legal system and why. Settling church disputes, or worse, taking advantage of anyone, let alone fellow believers, are not good ways for us to engage the legal system, to say the least.
Secondly, Paul is not saying there should never be differences, difficulties or grievances among Christians. He seems to assume that there will be such things. The question is, What will we do about them? We should be prepared for them, and not freak out when they rear their not-so-pretty heads. When disagreements or problems arise—not if–will we deal with them in ways that reflect the way Jesus rules the world? In love, truth and healing power? Or as adversaries in a winner-take all contest, the result of which is that someone must come out the winner, and the other one despoiled and defeated, thus destroying the relationship forever?
But thirdly, I’m not sure that Paul is just talking about the usual garden-variety conflicts or disagreements in the church. He says, “you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers!” “Wrong” and “defraud” are loaded legal words. Maybe the Corinthian courts had more than trivial disputes or doctrinal disagreements on its docket, whenever Christians showed up. As good as Roman jurisprudence started out to be, by the First Century, a lawsuit was often a legalized form of piracy, or a hostile takeover of someone else’s home, property and wealth, maybe even their freedom. Especially if the person filing the lawsuit was wealthier and better connected than the one being sued. Could it be that some wealthy, powerful and influential members of the Corinthian church were using their knowledge of people in church to pry them away from their wealth and property, even to enslave them, by means of lawsuits and their friends in high legal places? It was certainly happening back then outside the church. And stranger things have happened inside the church. Paul’s choice of words, “wrong and defraud,” makes me wonder.
Fourth, Paul is not saying that we must always take every injury, offense and disagreement lying down and say nothing. If so, he would be contradicting himself by even writing this letter. After all, he does not take the way the Corinthians abuse, humiliate and exploit each other lying down. He tells the truth in love. Do that, and we can keep a lot of differences and disagreements from festering into hostile, scorched-earth conflicts.
But he is saying the following three things:
First: Its better to take every injury and offense on the chin than to take it to the world and handle it in the way the world typically does, that is, in a way that is the legal equivalent of war or piracy.
Because, secondly: its not the disagreement that makes us lose, but how we handle it that can really make us lose. Or win. In fact, a conflict and a disagreement can be the prelude to a breakthrough, a solution, in which every party wins. Like the time, early on in the story of Mennonite mission work in a country that I won’t name, when the missionaries and the national church had some disagreements over their working relationship. The first constitution fused the national church and the mission agency into one single organization. Such fusion was a recipe for confusion. But when the missionaries brought up the matter to the national church and asked for a change, the new national Christians felt like they were being cut loose and abandoned. Relationships got strained, to say the least. It took some time and heavy lifting to work this all out. The result was a stronger and independent national church, which has grown in numbers and maturity, and is now giving some direction to the foreign mission agency, as well they should. Everybody won as a result of that conflict. But if it had been taken to a worldly court, in which somebody would have had to lose, everyone would have lost from the get-go.
And how sad. Because (thirdly) to the church is given God’s mission of reconciliation, the restoration of people and relationships, and conflict resolution. That’s what Paul means when he says that we, the saints, will “judge the world.” We’ll even judge angels, he says. I’m not sure what all he means by that. I don’t think it means that we’ll sit around on thrones, like the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, pointing our scepters at people and saying “Off With His Head!” all the time. I think it means we’ll do more and better in the next life of what we’re supposed to be doing here and now: loving each other. Love is how God rules; love is how we rule.
For us, this means that: 1) The world should be looking to the church for examples, help and guidance on how to resolve disputes and restore broken relationships, rather than the church looking to the world. And the church has given some good examples in some times and places. Like the Moravian Church did in Nicaragua, when it helped end the civil war between the Sandinista government and the Miskitu Indians some years back. And now, in North America, Mennonites are heavily involved in alternative conflict resolution efforts like Victim/Offender Reconciliation Programs. When there have been non-violent property crimes, or breaches of contract, for example, Victim/Offender Reconciliation circles can help the injured parties find real resolution and care, and restore the things and the relationships they have lost, without having to send the offender to jail where he or she might become a worse criminal than when they came in.
Secondly, I wonder if such conflict resolution skills aren’t what Paul means in this passage by the word “wise,” and later on in this letter when he writes about the spiritual gift of wisdom. Wisdom does not mean that we have no conflicts, or avoid all conflicts. It means that we know how to avoid unnecessary and unfruitful conflicts. And for those that are necessary, and even potentially fruitful, wisdom means that we know how to transform them into growing and learning opportunities; that we know how to turn differences into doorways for greater love and understanding.
That’s how the apostle James sees wisdom, when he writes in chapter 3: “But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.” Such wisdom for the ways of reconciliation should be a key feature in the spiritual life, the spiritual growth, and the spiritual gifting of Christians and their churches. No wonder then that Paul is so shocked and appalled at the fact that “there’s nobody among you wise enough to settle a dispute among brothers.” For crying out loud, he implies, what is the church for? Where did you mislay that gift? he’s wondering.
Thirdly, if, as I believe, a ministry of conflict resolution is a crying need in the church and in the world, then its also a wide-open opportunity for sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ, in word and deed. For what is the gospel that we preach but God’s peace initiative toward us, his gracious response to the conflict between himself and humanity, and between people and their tribes? But typically I find that in sharing the gospel with others, our guilt, our griefs, and our grievances against others, our personal histories as both offenders and the offended, our sacred identities as victors over others, or as the victims of others, stand as barriers to the healing, liberating grace of Jesus Christ. Conflicts, even long-buried and nearly-forgotten conflicts, can stand like blocks of buried ice, keeping hearts frozen against the spring-time warmth of God’s love. Or like brick walls impeding the flow of God’s healing grace. Those things between people sometimes have to be uncovered, and named, so that we might offer and seek forgiveness. When people’s hearts then begin to soften toward their enemies and offenders, when long-ruptured relationships begin to mend, then God begins to seem less distant, cold and scary too. Because, at heart, its God doing the thawing and mending.
As I have come to know more about this neighborhood and community, I have discerned that there is a lot of unresolved grief, guilt and grudges keeping people in many forms of impoverishment. Even rich and wealthy people. I doubt that’s unique to the Phillips Community. Some of it people brought from their countries of origin. Some of it is within families, between neighbors, or between landlords and tenants. Some of it is even between Christians and within churches.
So when I looked into the question of who is doing anything about conflicts and mediation, I found a few legal services, a few things in the public schools, and even at least one government agency offering such help. Which is great. But I’m still having trouble uncovering any sustained and intentional Christian church resources along that line. And our gospel is all about reconciliation! Go figure.
When I have asked some other local pastors about who offers such conflict transformation and reconciliation ministries among the churches of south side Minneapolis, many of their initial reactions were befuddlement and surprise. “You mean, churches do such things?”
Then it begins to dawn upon them: “Oh, Duh!” and “Cool!”
So, developing a Christian ministry of conflict transformation and mediation, based on the Holy Spirit gift of wisdom, could be a unique contribution that Mennonites could bring to the body of Christ in the Twin Cities. And that’s why I plan to take a week early next month in Chicago to study and learn about conflict transformation and mediation, under the auspices of the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center. Not that I’m suddenly going to change my job description from pastor to community peace keeper. I think that’s a job for more than one person in this church. But someone has to learn and to lead in this direction and encourage others, and I can’t lead anyone where I myself have never been. The buck stops with me.
Oh. And about the Kansas farmers and their lawsuit against the refinery: they won. And I actually approve of their action because a corporation is a creation of the legal system. It exists because someone filed legal documents. Taking a polluting corporation to court is like taking a child, who’s throwing rocks through your window, back to his parents. Somebody has to. Secondly, the farmers simply asked for the refinery to stop polluting, and to make restitution for their damages, the same as in any Victim/Offender Reconciliation program. I’m not aware that any of them went beyond that and tried to defraud the corporation and get rich off it.
Unlike some Christians in ancient Corinth, who were defrauding and demeaning some of their brothers and sisters. But Paul expected better of them, because so does God. And so does the world. Because there’s nothing less at stake than who rules the world, and how.